Award Winning Blog

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Result-Driven Federalism: How the FCC Rationalizes the Lawfulness of Preemption

            The current FCC pushes the federal preemption envelope, currently with an initiative to further constrain states and municipalities from regulating and requiring payment for wireless antenna installations on public property.  See  Once upon a time, Republicans deeply respected the concept of federalism: deference to state rights and reticence to extend the wingspan of federal oversight and interference.  Such regulatory humility evaporates when preemption achieves countervailing goals.  

            For wireless antenna site policy, the FCC majority sees the need to preempt greedy non-federal governments who want to extort money from wireless carriers.  Apparently, the goal of preventing outrageous rent extraction and delays in authorizing national security enhancing 5th Generation wireless justifies aggressive preemption, despite clear language in the Communications Act mandating shared jurisdiction.

            I can appreciate that some city councils, in particular, might look at wireless tower site authorization as a cash cow.  I can anticipate that some municipalities might try to extort outrageous payments and use the prospect of delay as negotiating leverage.  But I also can see wireless carriers using the FCC as lead blockers to beat municipalities and their citizens into submission.  What’s good for a wireless carrier must be good for society, right?  Tower siting decision making has nothing to do about aesthetics and respecting history and everything to do about ripping off big, bad corporations.

            Antenna siting has become a contentious issue, because of an ever increasing number of needed locations.  The migration to 5th Generation wireless service will trigger a massive increase in antenna sites, because new technologies have smaller “footprints” requiring more antenna installations.  This matter is all about money, but conflicting interpretations of federalism partially obscure this reality.

            Money and serving different constituencies force FCC regulators to abandon any semblance of jurisprudential consistency.  In this strange time, a political party predisposed to support federalism and reliant on the Federalist Society to vet judicial candidates, has to turn its back on a baseline and fundamental philosophical construct.  Republican FCC Commissioners want largely to preempt states and municipalities from economic regulation of wireless tower sites, but they rallied around the state’s right flag when their Democratic counterparts wanted to preempt state laws prohibiting the installation or expansion of Wi-Fi and other broadband networks.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted the argument that Congress did not sufficiently articulate a federal mandate of supporting broadband technology deployment and preventing laws, regulations and policies that thwart this goal.  See

            Reasonable people can disagree agreeably about the breadth, reach and scope of the FCC’s jurisdiction.  What I can’t tolerate is the sanctimony and righteous indignation of federalist advocates who readily ignore the principle when favored stakeholders knock on their door.